Over the years I have read the Psalms in a lectio continua fashion, that is Ps 1 to Ps 150 sequentially over and over. My initial step into this was really the response to things in my life. First questions about worship and then existential realities of a personal nature. My relationship with the Psalter has also had its mountains and valleys. Times when I really did not “like” this or that text and other times when I could not get enough of the same text I had not cared for previously. In many ways the Psalter has become the “Mirror of my soul.” I want to state five basic principles that I have arrived at that I think shape praying the Psalms (which I have condensed greatly for this Note) then I want to look at one specific Psalm and share a prayer I developed to be used in a group setting … some of my previous “poetry” (if I dare use the term) has been in some sense responses to Psalm 4 floating in my head.
The Psalms are …
1) prayer. They are inspired, and sung, prayer. We learn to pray by praying. Through joining our voice to the psalms we are already engaging God in an elemental act of sublime faith. Through this engagement the Spirit teaches us how to pray. Prayer for all occasions as there is great variety in the Psalter. In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great once refused to ordain a presbyter because he did not know the Psalms. Gregory believed this indicated the candidate was not serious enough about himself.
2) in, a way, “sacramental.” That is the Psalms transcend what we could devise on our own. The Psalms sustain in us a God ward movement like being carried along in a mighty river that we call the Holy Spirit. The Psalms draw us into a God Space and awareness of his Presence. This is why the monks of old would “eat” or “chew” the Psalms.
3) are forward looking. The ancient prayer warriors lived in hope and trust. The faith of our ancestors was eschatological. We cannot go through the Psalter without becoming people who live in hope as well. Our faith is forward looking for the kingdom to be manifest and the good news of justice for all to be implemented for all humanity. By sharing the Psalms we acquire a sense of time that is more than chronos but more akin to kairos. We live IN God’s time as we confess God’s reign in a rebellious world.
4) community or church oriented. The Psalms belong not just to individuals but to the whole people of God. They are in fact the collected communal prayers the Spirit gave not just to one of us but to all of us. Even “individual” psalms of lament are communal in the sense that the lament is placed squarely within the context of the greater church within the canonical book of Psalms itself. It is personal but not private. Here in the Psalms we have community that is sharing the “divine life” which is at the heart of what it means to be the people of God in both Testaments. As John confesses “… so that you may also have koinonia with us and truly our koinonia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1.3). The Psalms, in our prayers, place us squarely in the fellowship of God’s family throughout time. We are united to the “body” every time we join our voice to those Spirit Psalms.
5) present us ultimately with the face of the Messiah. This does no mean each and every Psalm is a prediction of Jesus of Nazareth. But it means that Jesus himself immersed himself in these prayers and cried them out to the Father. It means that Jesus -like me – found himself quite frequently as the one whose voice is being heard. In years past I wondered, for example, what Jesus had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that gave him sweat drops of blood … the Psalms have answered that for me. I can hear Jesus, with his face buried in the dirt, lamenting Psalm 69 … indeed I hear his voice. I hear his voice not only in Psalm 22 but all the Psalms surrounding. The Psalms pull us into the work of the Messiah, his mission and his message. Thus Gregory of Nyssa was essentially correct that the Psalms are the Holy Spirit’s tools to sculpt disciples into the image of the Messiah.
Ok, those are some overarching foundational principles that I have come to believe about the Psalms. It is great to have some principles but how do we take a specific Psalm and get on with the business of using it to pray. Communal or directed prayer is somewhat different (though what I am about to say can be used privately).